I spent much of the long weekend recovering from my trip to the village (blog post coming shortly) and reading George Orwell. Thank you to BrainPickings who shared several delightful posts on Orwell’s birthday a couple days ago. Just what I needed to end my quarterly holiday.
His writing put me to mind of long nights in my village as a child reading Oliver Twist, Mill on the Floss and Agatha Christie mysteries. Like theirs, his writing transported me to England, a country I came to love through books long before I ever went there. Despite a predominant mental image of England as wet and grey most of the time (I saw a picture of London when I was 16, the sun was shining and I couldn’t help asking “You mean the sun actually shines in London?”) it always felt cosy.
Orwell wrote an essay comparing American and English crime writing – ‘Raffles and Miss Blandish.’ Growing up in the village I must admit my literary image of America was mostly built up by James Hadley Chase and the same can be said for many of my peers. Who doesn’t remember ‘No Orchids for Miss Blandish’? If you are my age anyway.
Orwell calls James Hadley Chase’s writing ‘realism’ – “the doctrine that might is right.” I think that’s the world view dominant in Nigeria. We worship “ power and successful cruelty.” That is why in Nigeria a Buhari can win a Jonathan and an Obasanjo and a Babangida and even an Abacha can be hailed as hero’s.
Orwell wrote –
English books glorifying crime (modern crime, that is–pirates and highwaymen are different) are very rare. Even a book like RAFFLES, as I have pointed out, is governed by powerful taboos, and it is clearly understood that Raffles’s crimes must be expiated sooner or later. In America, both in life and fiction, the tendency to tolerate crime, even to admire the criminal so long as he is success, is very much more marked. It is, indeed, ultimately this attitude that has made it possible for crime to flourish upon so huge a scale.
It’s obvious we are more like the Yanks than the Brits in Nigeria. At least some of us. And then there IS a whole section that are very much like the Brits (all the way down to the hypocrisy.) So in Nigeria one could say the Yanks and the Brits are again at war, for the hearts and minds of the people of Nigeria. The final battle ground? Who will win?
Orwell himself is so old fashioned and so proper, a purist defending all those British values I read about – courtesy, good manners, restraint, honour – a stiff upper lip. His nostalgia for that bygone time oozes through to me as surely as Agatha Christie’s did. I was infected with that nostalgia and a love for that empire even though I have no experience of that time in the early 20th century before it crumbled. Or a political thought in my head.
Living in the village in south east Nigeria with no library, no plumbing and no electricity reading about life in turn of the century Britain, the British Empire seemed like a conquering civilising force just like the Roman Empire. And to be a Commonwealth citizen was like being a Roman citizen (that was before they spoiled it all by introducing visa and immigration restrictions.)
The innocence of youth. But I digress.
Orwell’s ‘1984’ was not one of the books I read. The tamer ‘Animal Farm’ was on our reading list. Hard as it is to admit I read it for the first time this weekend. I kept seeing images from Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in The Wall’ with the words. And when that wasn’t enough I started mentally illustrating the words with dark gothic Marvelesque pictures.
In ‘Raffles and Miss Blandish’ Orwell wrote:
The inter-connexion between sadism, masochism, success-worship, power-worship, nationalism, and totalitarianism is a huge subject whose edges have barely been scratched.
He definitely did more than just scratch the edges in ‘1984.’ O’Brien seems to sum up that inter-connexion. I wouldn’t be surprised if O’Brien isn’t Big Brother. Wait a minute. Is he?
Orwell doesn’t completely absolve English crime writing of sadism and power worship.
But it is sadism after the English fashion: that is to say, it is unconscious, there is not
overtly any sex in it, and it keeps within the bounds of the law. The British public tolerates a harsh criminal law and gets a kick out of monstrously unfair murder trials: but still that is better, on any account, than tolerating or admiring crime. If one must worship a bully, it is better that he should be a policeman than a gangster.
So we are back to the comparison with Nigeria. In Nigeria our policemen ARE gangsta’s and it would seem the people would rather worship the real gansta’s so much so that they elevate them to elective office. And make the police worship them. How is that for an Alice in Wonderland hypothesis?
Who won? The Yanks or the Brits?
The Yanks and the Brits are allies anyway (like Oceania and Eurasia or maybe Oceania and Eastasia but it can all change, who knows.) The battle isn’t between the Yanks and the Brits, its between Nigerians. More than 200 tribal and linguistic groups, just 5 or 6 large ones and everyone is struggling to enforce their truth as the only truth.
“Might is right” or “the end justifies the means” politics, that is what Nigeria has turned democracy into, even the Americans are copying us now. Orwell would have hated Trump’s regime but he would have hated the cold war between the left and the right even more I reckon. They have squared off in a classic good vs. evil battle.
The common people, on the whole, are still living in the world of absolute good and evil from which the intellectuals have long since escaped. But the popularity of NO ORCHIDS and the American books and magazines to which it is akin shows how rapidly the doctrine of ‘realism’ is gaining ground. The average man is not directly interested in politics, and when he reads, he wants the current struggles of the world to be translated into a simple story about individuals.
Orwell seems abandon intellectuals and join the ranks of he common man when he excoriates Salvador Dali and surrealism in another essay titled ‘Benefits of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali.’
What he clearly needs is diagnosis. The question is not so much WHAT he is as WHY he is like that. It ought not to be in doubt that his is a diseased intelligence, probably not much
altered by his alleged conversion, since genuine penitents, or people who have returned to sanity, do not flaunt their past vices in that complacent way. He is a symptom of the world’s illness. The important thing is not to denounce him as a cad who ought to be horsewhipped, or to defend him as a genius who ought not to be questioned, but to find out WHY he exhibits that particular set of aberrations.
That gave me a good laugh. See shade.
Obscenity is a very difficult question to discuss honestly. People are too frightened either of seeming to be shocked or of seeming not to be shocked, to be able to define the relationship between art and morals.
At least Orwell was honest in his revulsion at Dali. Just as he was honest in his praise of Gandhi. At least as honest as you can expect a hypocritical Englishman to be (his words, about English hypocrisy, not mine.)
“How clean a smell he has managed to leave behind” Orwell wrote in ‘Reflections of Gandhi’ even though he described much of Gandhi’s philosophy as inhuman and atavistic.
My favorite quote from this weekend reading –
Sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid. Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.
It has freed me from the chains of sainthood. There are too many wannabe saints in Nigeria already. As an Igbo-Nigerian I can tell you that our hero’s and leaders are no saints. They are more like the licentious Roman gods than saints. Our hero’s, gods and leaders have flaws – like lust or temper or gluttony. That way we can relate to them. And avoid hypocrisy.
“People worship power in the form in which they are able to understand it” – Orwell.
Sometimes its hard to remember he wrote all this in the 1940’s. I swear.
I had to look up the dictionary definitions of realism and surrealism. It is the difference between things as they are and things as bizarre. Well, we live in pretty bizarre times right now and have to accept them as the times as they are. And deal with them. They are not opposites. Neither one is good or bad. Neither are Dali and Gandhi.
I’m also more a Dali than a Gandhi. And thanks to Orwell now I know that’s alright too. I wonder why Orwell hated Dali so much? I wonder what he would make of me featuring Dali’s work in this blog post about him?
“Every morning upon awakening, I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dalí.”
Fortified and inspired I can go about being my awesome self – Lesley.
(Find a collection of Orwell’s work including ‘1984’ here.)